To kick off 2018, we interviewed one of our favorite songwriters in the game, Josh Ritter. As he prepares to hit the road behind his newest album Gathering, Ritter opened up about his brand new standalone single “Miles Away,” what it’s been like to play with his trusted The Royal City Band behind him for so many years, how Gathering fits in his 20-years (and counting) career, and much more.
NoiseTrade: To kick things off, tell us about your brand new standalone single “Miles Away” that you’re releasing ahead of your upcoming tour. What’s the story behind the writing and recording of this previously unreleased song?
Josh Ritter: I wrote “Miles Away” after flipping through a photo book of photographs of the World from Space. I really wanted to create the lonesome feeling that lingers until just that moment before you fall in love.
NT: For this tour you’re once again performing each night with The Royal City Band behind you. What’s it like to work with the same band for close to a decade now (with some members even longer) and how do you all keep things fresh and exciting for yourselves on stage?
Ritter: I’m a huge believer in shared experience. As great as this band is and as much talent as they all have, nothing means quite so much to a good show as being able to look across the stage at a friend you’ve been playing music with years and years. There’s more magic in shared experience than anywhere else. They’re damn fine players and we have a damn fine time.
NT: One of the tour stops includes your first headlining gig at The Ryman in Nashville, which usually provides a memorable night for any touring musician. Do you have any special thoughts on that particular show or any surprises in store for the audience that night?
Ritter: The Ryman is special. There are some venues that you don’t even want to set foot in before you play. The Ryman is like that for me. As a student of American music, and as a practitioner, I can’t think of a more holy place to play. I know my band feels the same. We’re gonna have a wonderful, celebratory show.
NT: Your most recent album Gathering serves as a bit of a 20-year mile marker in your career. Does that timeframe feel about right to you or does the milestone surprise you in any way?
Ritter: It’s completely surprising to still be out on the road playing every night. When I was first getting started, I had big dreams but the future was a gauzy white light. I think some things would surprise me and other things would be taken more as a natural outgrowth of having no alternate plan for my life. When I discovered music, that was it for me.
NT: A couple years back you started collaborating with The Grateful Dead’s Bob Weir and you contributed greatly to his solo album Blue Mountain. How did that creative partnership first come about and what can you tell us about your Gathering song “When Will I Be Changed” that Weir shows up on?
Ritter: I met Bob through Royal City guitar player Josh Kaufman. Josh had worked with Bob on a bunch of stuff and Bob had told him about his vision of a record that would pay tribute to the cowboy music that he’d heard when he was growing up. I fell in love with Bob’s voice and his attitude toward making music and while I was working on Gathering I sought to carry that attitude into my own work. The record was almost done when I got the idea of making “When Will I Be Changed” as a duet with Bob, but when I first heard his voice blasting over the speakers I knew the record was finally done.
NT: Finally, alongside your musical career, you’re also a celebrated painter and the cover art to Gathering is one of your own works. What was the inspiration behind that individual piece and how do you feel that the visual side of your creativity interacts and plays off your musical side?
Ritter: I paint because it makes me feel good. I know I’ll never be great at it, but it quiets my mind and is a really rewarding time for me. While I was making the record, and for some time after, I was caught up in painting landscapes, many with the hint of oncoming storms. When a particularly turbulent painting started taking shape, I began to draw the line between the storms on the record and the stormy paintings I had been working on. The only thing I really know about my own mind is that it is very recombinative and that its preoccupations turn into art. I try to follow my mind wherever it wants to go.